It is a common phenomenon in the former Soviet Union for Jewish people to participate in ‘community’ yet have no real knowledge of Judaism. It is a conundrum that we face often when working in Belarus.
In 2018 as part of our Zoymen summer programme, we facilitated the bar mitzvah of Stas Zaiko on the territory of the Slonim Great Synagogue. Stas was taught Hebrew and prepared for his bar mitzvah by one of our UK Youth for Youth ambassadors, and we bought Rabbi Stas Wojciechowicz from Warsaw to officiate. This historic event was the first bar mitzvah to have taken place in Slonim for over 80 years. In 1941 the Nazis came to Slonim and annihilated the Jewish community which had swelled from 17,000 to 23,000 as Jews fleeing from the East had sought sanctuary in Slonim after the Nazi invasion of Poland through Danzig in 1939. By 1943 only 200 Slonimer Jews had survived as escaped ghetto prisoners who had taken up arms as Partisans in the forests.
In 2018, one of the participants on our Zoymen programme, was Pavel Guzman, a member of The Slutsk community. A quiet participant on camp, more an observer and curious onlooker. Pavel showed signs of interest around Stas’s bar mitzvah and so in the autumn of 2018, we approached him to ask if he would like to learn Hebrew and go through the process himself. Pavel did not ponder for long and came back with a response in the affirmative. In early 2019, Liliane Kramer, our highly experienced lay leader and Jewish educator in the UK with over 40 years’ experience, agreed to teach Pavel Hebrew and prepare him for his ceremony. With the support of Ukrainian born Gelena Rozenberg acting as a Russian/English translator, lessons began on Zoom. With very little support or encouragement from those around Pavel in Belarus, he was essentially working in isolation. Liliane patiently supported Pavel as he gradually got to grips with the Hebrew letters and across the miles faces pressed up to respective computer screens, the learning process took shape. There were challenges to overcome, and at times, we questioned whether the task was too great. With some support and encouragement to Pavel from our youth ambassador in Minsk, Vlad Zaiko, the lessons continued. Liliane persisted patiently and Pavel slowly improved. As we turned the corner from 2019 to 2020, news of a new disease in China started to reach us. Who knew then, what was to follow as country after country, one after another went into lockdown falling like dominoes, in a fight against COVID-19.
Our summer programme due to take place in July 2020, was postponed to 2021, and this has where we were going to celebrate Pavel’s bar mitzvah on July 16th. Although the pandemic has inevitably halted our plans for the summer, the bar mitzvah will still go ahead. What was already incredibly difficult has suddenly become a minefield of complex challenges. With our Sefer Torah in the north of the country, Pavel 350 km away and a country not in any official lockdown but caught in the coronavirus epidemic, we know we have work to do. Plans are now under discussion as to how to proceed. The aim is to safely deliver the Torah, have someone officiate the bar mitzvah, involve the community in a way that does not put lives at risk and involve the Youth for Youth summer camp cohort virtually so that they can be part of the ceremony. We are now faced with the most extraordinary scenario and we will do everything we can to ensure that Pavel has his bar mitzvah against all the odds. Reviving Jewish life in Belarus is indeed a miracle but this endeavour will be one that is nothing short of supercharged.